Roundup: Forcing a narrative onto Petronas’ facts

Over the past few days, we’ve seen a spike in concern trolling editorials about the state of natural resources projects in Canada, predicated by Petronas’ decision to cancel the Pacific NorthWest LNG plant in BC. And reading through these editorials, be they from John Ivison, the National Post editorial board, or Licia Corbella (well, that one I’m not bothering to read or link to because she’s a fabulist who doesn’t deserve clicks), but the effect is the same – woe is Canada’s energy sector because of too much government regulation. They also claim that the excuse of market conditions is just political cover.

The problem with that, however, is that it doesn’t actually take the facts into account – it’s merely asserting their pre-existing narrative onto the situation, which is why it’s well worth your time to read Andrew Leach’s exploration of the economic case and conditions for why Pacific NorthWest didn’t go ahead. And when people like Ivison say that projects are going ahead in the US and Australia, Leach explains why (and it has a lot to do with pre-existing infrastructure that BC doesn’t have). So yes, there is a very big market reason why the project was cancelled, and perhaps these editorialists should actually read up on just what that is before they make facile pronouncements, because trying to force a narrative onto the facts is doing a disservice to Canadians.

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Roundup: Appointment backlog woes

The National Post has a really good piece looking into the current backlog of appointments and the effect it’s having on the functioning of government. It’s something that has been talked about a lot, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a good breakdown of those vacancies, and the effect that it’s having. It’s one of those subjects that sounds pretty easy to grumble about, but it’s also something that we should take a step back and realise that to a certain extent, the goals of reforming the appointments process has been laudable, and in many cases, overdue when it comes to increasing the level of diversity into these positions. Over the course of my reporting, a lot of civil society actors have praised the move (while still being concerned at the timeframe it took for getting the processes up and running) because they all know that the outcomes will inevitably be better over the longer term now that the bulk of positions aren’t simply being filled by straight white men.

That said, I also wanted to just put a bit of additional context around some of this backlog in saying that as much as the Conservatives are baying at the moon about some of these appointments right now, that they were no saints when it came to this sort of thing either, and reformed the appointment process for some of these positions themselves, creating massive backlogs in the process. The two that come to mind immediately are the Immigration and Refugee Board, where they took a functioning system and drove it to dysfunction when they changed that process to “de-politicise it” (with plenty of accusations that they just made the system easier to put their own cronies in) and turning a system where the optimal number of files was churning through into a massive backlog that they tried to blame their predecessors on (sound familiar?). The other was the Social Security Tribunal, which they completely revamped as part of their changes to the system overall, and I’m not sure it ever got fixed before they lost the election, only for the Liberals to turn around to reform the appointment process yet again. So yes, some of the backlogs are bad, but in some cases, ‘twas ever thus, and we should keep that in mind.

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Roundup: Trudeau’s missing electoral reform link

Apparently, we’re going to prosecute the demise of electoral reform yet again, after Justin Trudeau was asked about it in his end-of-sitting press conference yesterday. Trudeau, to his credit, was a bit more frank and earnest than he has been on this in the past, and laid out how he had always been in favour of ranked ballots because they eliminate the need for strategic voting, and the opposition was so solidly in their own camps – the NDP for Proportional Representation and the Conservatives for status quo with the added kicker of demanding a referendum – that Trudeau ended up pulling the plug, because he sees PR as bad for the country (he’s not wrong) and referendums even more problematic (again, their track records globally right now are not good).

Of course, everyone freaked out about this answer, and starting howling and frothing at the mouth about how much he’d betrayed them with this promise. Of course, per his promise he did draw up a committee and consult, but he pulled the plug before changing the system.

Part of the problem – aside from the fact that it was a stupid promise to begin with – was that the Liberals on the electoral reform committee didn’t make the case for ranked ballots, nor did they call any witnesses to put forward that position, and apparently disinvited the ones who had already been invited. Having listened to the eager faces on the committee, I’m not entirely convinced that this was simply a cynical ploy the whole time, but I do think a great deal of naïveté was at play, where they were trying to be open-minded – something none of the other parties could say, as they did their utmost to stack the process from the beginning, both with the torqued composition of the committee itself, to the selection of witnesses, to the so-called “consensus” in the report (which was hot garbage, let me reiterate).

The fact that the Liberals played coy about their Trudeau’s preference was certainly a problem. Maybe it’s because they were trying to avoid the myth going around that ranked ballots were “First-past-the-post on steroids,” a characterization based on the analysis of a single poll of second-choice votes of the 2015 election, which was neither authoritative, nor did it take into account the fact that it didn’t produce such a result in Australia, and yet this notion hovered in Canadian media for months. So the handling of this whole affair continues to mystify, but for the love of all the gods on Olympus, can we just bury it already?

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Roundup: Provocative boilerplate

The House of Commons has risen for the summer, but how long it stays risen could be the big question as the Senate has two bills on its plate that they could send back to the Commons. The first of those is the budget implementation bill, after the Commons rejected their amendment. What inflamed tensions however was the boilerplate language that it was rejected for infringing on the rights and privileges of the Commons.

The fact that this is boilerplate eluded many Senators (and yours truly), given that it seemed to be yet another provocation given some of the underlying tensions in the current dispute. Yes, the language comes from Section 80(1) of the Standing Orders, but given that the Senate is trying to assert its independence and authority, the words seemed particularly targeted in this instance, especially as the Prime Minister rather dubiously claimed that the Senate has no ability to amend or reject budget bills when their only actual limitation is that they can’t initiate them.

Having received this rejection, the Senate decided to leave it overnight to think it over, and with luck, tempers will cool and they’ll get the better sense that this is boilerplate straight from the appendix of Beauchesne’s Parliamentary Rules and Forms, 5th edition, that that it likely wasn’t meant as a slight or a provocation. (Probably. But given how ham-fisted and tone-deaf the House Leader has a tendency of being, this isn’t a guarantee). It’s possible that cooler heads will prevail and they will defer rather than letting it ping-pong.

The more contentious bill may in fact be Bill S-3, which amends the Indian Act to remove gender-based discrimination, but the Commons rejected the Senate amendments that would eliminate other forms of discrimination. This particular bill may wind up being more problematic because it’s not a money bill and there is a bigger point of principle about discrimination and rights which a lot of senators get very exercised about (rightfully), and Indigenous senators in this case are particularly sensitive to. There have been suggestions that some are proposing a conference between the chambers to resolve the potential impasse, but we are not there yet.

Part of the calculation is that because the Commons has risen, a game of chicken is now being declared, where they are essentially daring senators not to recall them to deal with these amendments, and like Peter Harder has been doing, there will be all kinds of voices going on about the expense of such a recall. I think it’s overblown, but it wouldn’t be the first time that the Commons has used such a tactic to try and force the Senate’s hand into backing down on passing bills at the end of the sitting.

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Roundup: Demanding ATIP perfection may be the enemy of the good

I find myself torn about the government announcement on new legislation to amend the Access to Information Act because on the whole, they made most of the changes that they promised to, but they failed to uphold one promise, which was to make the Act apply to the PMO and minister’s offices. And yes, We The Media let them know how displeased we were about it.

Part of the problem here is that like so many of their other election promises, it may have been a stupid one – kind of like their promise around electoral reform. Why? Because it was always going to be problematic to promise access to cabinet documents, and there’s a very good reason for that, because much of that information should remain private because it will otherwise damage the ability for there to be unfettered advice to ministers or between cabinet colleagues, and they need to have space to make these kinds of deliberations, otherwise the whole machinery of government starts to fall apart.

Like Philippe Lagassé says, the better discussion would have been to have specific proposals as to what falls under cabinet confidence. Currently the Information Commissioner has some determination around that, and with the changes in this bill, the onus will be reversed – the government will need to convince her (and if that fails, the courts) that information should remain secret, as opposed to her having to take the government to court to get that access. That’s significant.

There is a lot of good in these changes, but I fear that it will be lost amidst the grumbling that it didn’t go far enough. And let’s face it – sometimes We The Media are our own worst enemies when we use Access requests for cheap outrage stories rather than meaningful accountability, and then wonder why the government suddenly clamps down and turns to message control, and worst of all, nobody wants to talk about that problem. That may wind up making things worse for everyone in the end.

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Roundup: Not seeing the cannon fodder

After thinking a bit more about it, and seeing some of the reaction over the Twitter Machine over the weekend, I find myself coming back to Chantal Hébert’s weekend column about Trudeau treating his rookie ministers like cannon fodder, and I really have a hard time with it. Part of why I have difficulty is because it ignores some of the actual day-to-day realities as to why there were so many rookies in cabinet, which was that there were not a lot of veterans to choose from, and in order to maintain regional and gender balance, while still ensuring that you had enough veterans to do the other jobs of being a party in power, like having committee chairs who had some experience, then of course you were going to have rookies in cabinet. As well, the fact that Trudeau is behaving far more in the ethos of government by cabinet than his predecessor means that some of these rookies are going to be saddled with responsibility (and yes, this is a far less centrally-controlled cabinet, as I’ve spoken to staffers who used to work at Queen’s Park and have regaled us with the vast differences between how things operated between them).

I also find the implicit notion that it’s young women ministers being thrown under the bus to be a problem, because I’m not so sure we’d hear the same complaints if it were a male minister who has been handed a tough file and it doesn’t go according to the expectations of the pundit class. Yes, Joly made a bad call with Madeleine Meilleur, but I would hardly call Joly incapable, and she is juggling a lot of other files on her plate at the moment. She’s not incompetent, and Trudeau hasn’t thrown her under any bus. Maryam Monsef? She handled a file that was basically a flaming bag of dog excrement and managed to come out intact with a promotion to a line department with a hefty agenda (whereas “Democratic institutions” is a make-work project with staff assigned from PCO). Monsef did her job, better than most people give her credit for, and the fact that the Rosemary’s Baby that was electoral reform got smothered in the cradle is not a black mark on her because she didn’t micromanage the committee. The fact that the Liberals on that committee dropped the ball and didn’t make their own case, and in fact let themselves be railroaded by the other parties is not Monsef’s fault (though one has to wonder how much blame to assign to her for letting Nathan Cullen manipulate her into accepting the “proportional” nonsense in committee make-up that doomed it). If anyone blames Karina Gould for electoral reform being cancelled, they’re the ones at fault – not Gould. Trudeau made that call (rightfully), and has taken his lumps for it. And if Hébert or anyone else (like Ed Broadbent for one) thinks that these poor young women should have been either kept out of cabinet instead of being given difficult files and a chance to prove themselves because they’re women, then I think that’s a bigger problem. I’m not seeing any cannon fodder – just some ministers doing their best with some of the problems handed to them.

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Roundup: Changing the face of the bench

The Globe and Mail has an interesting read about the way in which the current government is making a concerted effort to appoint more women to the bench as it (slowly) makes its judicial appointments. While the numbers of women appointed are disproportionate to the numbers that have applied, that seems less concerning to me because it has been shown that fewer women will apply to positions like these because they tend to downplay their own qualifications (just as with trying to get more women to run for public office). I also think that the justice minister has a point when she says that part of the reason for so few appointments being made from visible minorities is in part because there are too few applying, and too few in the justice system as a whole. I also look to something that Senator Jaffer said to me in a piece I wrote for the Law Times about the judicial appointments issue, which is that for many of the appointment committees, they don’t tend to look beyond their own boxes when they make recommendations, so we see fewer women and visible minorities being put forward, and that proactive approaches have been shown to be needed in the past. This government seems to be willing to go some of the distance in bridging that gap, but as always, more work needs to be done, and yes, it’s taking far too long in most of the cases.

What does bother me is the notion that by appointing women and minorities is that this is simply about quotas, and it’s the exact same things we’ve been hearing in the past couple of weeks with regards to people making their evaluations of the federal cabinet, and the quiet clucking of tongues when they go “rookie, diversity hire, not very competent.” Never mind that in many cases, much of the judging is harsh, unfair to the person or the situation they were put into, or deliberately misconstrued to present a worse picture than what actually happened (such as with Maryam Monsef). Never mind the fact that if none of these people are given a chance as rookies, they won’t actually get experience. And yes, some of them are performing poorly (and even more curiously, the ones who I think actually are having problems are the ones who are never the ones being written about). But hearing the constant quota refrain is getting tiresome to read about.

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QP: Refusing an answer

On a busy caucus day, with most of the benches full, it was a question as to how much cheap outrage would be wrought in QP. Rona Ambrose led off, railing about the Infrastructure Bank, to which Justin Trudeau insisted that people were eager for infrastructure investment. Ambrose moved onto Bombardier and the loan given to them despite the misgivings about their governance. Trudeau noted that they gave a repayable loan I order to guarantee good paying jobs. Ambrose changed topics again, denouncing government plans to gut a private member’s bill on bail reform (which, I will note, the legal community is against), and Trudeau insisted that he felt for ten widow of the constable the bill was named after, which was why he was pleased the committee took the study of the bill seriously. Ambrose was outraged, but Trudeau reiterated his response. Ambrose gave it an angry third try, but didn’t get a different response. Thomas Mulcair was up next, worrying about media reports that a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister was going to be named as the new Official Languages Commissioner. Trudeau noted that there was an independent process, but didn’t confirm or deny the story, only that there would be an announcement in the coming days and weeks. Mulcair tried again, got the same answer, and then moved onto the job postings for the Infrastructure Bank, which has not yet been created. Trudeau simply talked about the need for new infrastructure, but didn’t address the concerns. Mulcair railed about the problem, and Trudeau noted the broad consultations that they undertook with the design of the Bank.

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Roundup: Face it, strategic voting is a sham

With BC now in a provincial general election, the messages about “strategic voting” are again plaguing the social media channels. Brenda Fine, aka @moebius_strip, wrote a response to this constant complaints, and pointed out the huge folly in the various “strategies” being proposed, in part because they rely on dubious polling practices and because the groups organizing these “strategic voting” sites often have their own agendas (usually NDP partisans from my own observations) and will urge people to vote in ways that were wildly against the best chances for a non-Conservative (per the 2015 federal election), which in many cases was Liberal by a landslide. So yes, strategic voting is generally a foolhardy practice that has no actual basis is reality, but time after time, despite it being proven to be wrong, people continue to insist on it. Because this time, it’ll work for sure!

Part of what bugs me about the constant lamentations about strategic voting is that they are predicated on this notion that you should always be able to vote for ice cream with sprinkles in every election and get that result, even when ice cream with sprinkles is not always what’s on offer. Voting is about making a decision, and sometimes, it’s not an easy choice and voters are forced to put on their big boy/girl pants and make a tough decision given a bunch of unsavoury choices. Sure, it sucks, but it’s called being an adult in a democratic society, and you have a responsibility to make tough calls. And then, once you’ve made that tough call, you can look at what you did to contribute toward ensuring that there was a better choice on that ballot, whether it was participating in a nomination race to get better candidates’ names put forward, or joining a party to ensure that better policies were on offer coming from the grassroots membership. Of course, 98 percent of the population did nothing to ensure that there were better choices on that ballot, and then complain that they have to make an unsavoury choice. Aww, muffin. Democracy’s not a spectator sport where you get to just cast a ballot every four years if you’re not too busy. It means you actually have to participate if you want better outcomes. (And here’s a primer to show you that it’s actually not that difficult to do that and get involved).

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Roundup: Candour versus transparency

The government announced yesterday that their proposed changes to the Access to Information Act won’t be coming as quickly as promised because they “wanted to get it right.” Now far be it for me to be completely cynical about this in asserting that they never intended to fulfil this promise, because I’m not entirely sure that’s the case, but I will also say that any Conservative crowing about how terrible the Liberals are for this delay *cough*Pierre Lemieux*cough* needs to give their head a shake because the Liberal have already made changes that far exceed what the Conservative did on this file. This all having been said, Howard Anglin makes some interesting points about this, and whether it’s desirable for them to go ahead with some of these changes.

As much as my journalistic sensibilities want greater transparency, I also do feel a great deal of sympathy for the point about candour. Having too many things in the open has had an effect on the operation of parliament and times where parties could quietly meet and come to a decision with little fuss has turned into a great deal of political theatre instead (which is one reason why I’m wary of opening up the Board of Internal Economy too much). We want functional institutions, and that does require candour, and not all desires to keep that candour and ability to speak openly from being public is more than just a “culture of secrecy” – there is a deal of self-preservation involved. While it would be nice if we could wave a magic wand and the line by which this tension is resolved would be clearly demarcated lines, but that’s not going to happen. This is going to be muddled through the hard way.

Meanwhile, Susan Delacourt writes about that culture of secrecy that exists within the capital – an even within Cabinet jealously guarding information – and how it’s an ongoing fight to keep from letting that culture keep going unchallenged.

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